The sound of the little ‘69 Ford Bronco pulling into the drive would always be followed by the call from my Mother “FREDS HERE!” I was out the door in a flash, ready to coon hunt.
Fred was my eighth grade English teacher, I had met him the summer before while fishing a small river and I never expected to become friends with him, let alone hunting buddies. We both lived in the same quiet little city and the countryside was a mere 5 miles away.
Cornfields, and small lots of oak woods were everywhere, the housing boom was years away and permission to hunt coons was easy to get.
I’ll never forget one of the first times hunting with Fred. He had just made a deal on a few coon dogs with the local fur buyer who I knew as well. We were in high hopes of treeing a few coons that night, me being the green horn I just followed Fred’s example. I could hear the dog running and it voice bawling, then it became choppy and it really changed its tune. Fred hollered it’s treed and we made our way to the treed coon.
After a brisk walk we found ourselves at the base of a cottonwood tree. What a tree it was, a cottonwood about 65 feet high. Its branches were the size of most other trees trunks; this was a true monster of a tree. Even in the darkness of the night it was a sight to behold.
We looked for a few minutes trying to find the coon we knew was hiding up there. Fred’s “Wheat” light followed the trunk to the very top and then over a bit off center. “There it is”! He said and with out missing a beat he said “Let’s shake it out!”
At the time I was no dummy, although my school grades may have reflected differently. Big tree and shake are not possible. So I asked “how?” “Well you’re a young man”. “Climb up there and shake it out”. And so I did. Climb the tree that is. Shake? Well I tried.
The coon finally moved into view so Fred could shoot it. I could here the dog rush in and the coon growl a little and all was still. 20 pounds of coon was ours to carry out and take home.
Later on that night, we were coming home in the rain; the roads were as dark as the sky. Fred commented that the glasses he was wearing were “not the best” and he could “hardly see” the road. What? And I was in the tree while you shot? I heard him mumble something and to this day I’ll be darned if I know what he said.
My first time out and we had a coon, this is easy I thought. Boy was I wrong. The next few times out were a real work out. We crossed rivers climbed hillsides, fell down hillsides and crossed more creeks and rivers than I ever knew were out there. By the end of the first season I was a confirmed coon hunting maniac, I loved it!
I even took a few dates out coon hunting in High School. The evenings were the nicer ones though. Dry air a warm breeze and a woods with a tractor path to walk on. Sitting out there looking at the stars and talking made for a nice evening.
In time I acquired a few dogs of my own. One was a big old red tick hound named “RED” of course. I got him off of death row at the pound. The local dog catcher called me a told me about Red.
Red was the biggest dog I had ever seen his head was as wide, as he was in the shoulders. I was kind of leery about loading the dog into the cab with me for the ride home but being young I had to push fear aside and go for it.
Well about the time we left the parking lot and hit the road old Red was sound asleep with that massive head of his in my lap. He was a pussy cat. He was a gentle dog unless you left him inside a 69 ford bronco with another pussy cat of a Black and Tan coon hound, as I found out the hard way.
I was on my way hunting one night with Fred’s dog, the Black and Tan and Red, figuring two hounds is better than one. I had stopped at the local 7/11 to get a Kielbasa and fill my thermos with coffee. Just as I turned around from the coffee pot in comes this guy with a panicked look. I figured there was a car wreck and he needed help, by the look on his face.
He says “Hey! Is that you’re Bronco? I say “Yep it is”. He says “Well there’s some kind of animal in it raising all sorts of Hell in it.”
I flew out the door to see what appeared to be an empty Bronco, Throw open the door to see two very large dogs stuck in the area near the gas peddle, trying to eat each other or at least bite off anything they can that’s not theirs.
Trusty thermos in hand, I commenced to swinging and pulling on dog parts hoping my own hand would not fall into the path of the slashing teeth. Blood was everywhere, on the headliner, dash, back window, floor, it was a mess. I finally got them calmed down and assure the crowd that has now assembled everything is OK.
I leave to drop off Fred’s dog. “I hope He’s OK” I said and then got the heck out of there, not wanting any more blood shed that night.
Coonhounds are a tough breed of dog and that was just a primer for the dog. He was ready to run and tree a coon now. As I remember I never had to fire a shot that night. Red caught every coon we got that night on the ground and killed it. I guess he was really primed for the hunt that night. On the way home he slept like a baby curled up in the seat next to mine.
A friend of mine once joined myself and Red for a nights hunting. “Tom” I said “don’t run away from Red if you’re carrying the coon”, “just whack Red upside the head and he’ll behave”.
Tom liked to fight in the local bars, if he didn’t like it, well then, the other guys fighting must have liked getting their butts kicked cause Tom could whipped some butt .He was fearless. So off we go following Reds long drawn out bawls which after a time turned into short little choppy barks telling us “Hey it’s treed come get it” By now both Tom and I are excited about the hunt and I run over a shoot the coon out of the tree. It landed right next to Tom dead!
Tom reaches down to pick up the coon and he sort of throws the dead coon over his shoulder to carry it out of the woods. Well old Red comes over and jumps up to bite the coon he figures is his. Red’s teeth would pop quite loud when he tried to bite something and missed, Red missed twice.
I always thought that’s what a bears popping teeth must sound like. Tom forgets what I told him and starts running through the field with the coon in one hand and a flashlight in the other hand. Red is right on Toms tail.
I had a vision that night of a strange looking firefly from outer space. One that flew about 60 mph made a terrible screaming sound and popped it jaws. I was scared just looking at the scenario in total darkness.
Well it took me a few minutes to calm Red down after he ran with Tom and we were off to run another field. Tom never seemed to take to coon hunting after that night, I guess he enjoyed the bar fights more. I continued to Coon hunt for a few more years.
I owe a great deal to the man who showed me all I know about coon hunting, that man was Fred Vonalt. Many fall nights we trod the wet woods in search of the raccoons; dogs ran the hillsides singing their songs, we sat and sipped hot coffee telling lies and sharing thoughts.
All of what Fred told me in the coon woods I remember to this day, I don’t remember anything from his classroom however.
Memories…… I have more than my share of them. The night sky with a million stars, a sky so black at times nothing seemed to be above us, and everything in between.
Memories of old farmers who let us hunt their 40 acres.
Memories of woods, corn fields and barbwire
Of the cries, that filled Fred’s house.
The night the family pet was lost.
Thirty years have passed since then and I still remember all of it.
Above all I remember the trust and respect from one old hunter to one young hunter that was always given.